Hampton VA to Bahamas (1st part)
There is not much to do in Hampton. A place that at some point in history had some strategic importance because of its location (Fort Monroe was built on its eastern shore), it failed to grow into a dynamic city that would attract businesses and workers. It is now home to fewer than 150,000 people and offers jobs in, mainly, low end services and construction to mostly low skilled workers — only one in five has a college degree. In our first night there, after a quick dinner in the boat, I headed back to the bar at the Marina and stayed put until it closed at around 11pm.
The next day, Saturday, we were expecting Natalia and Richard in the early afternoon. In the morning, after a cup of coffee, I took a long, hot, shower in the marina’s facilities and then attended a “safety at sea” seminar, mainly about how to deploy a life raft. I found it quite instructive. We had several jobs to do: check the spare sails (a main sail without battens and a small jib); take down the genoa from the furler to run a few stitches along its leach; fix the compass light; tighten a dripping packing gland (a part that prevents water from coming-in where the propeller shaft connects to the engine); and refill the propane tank. Carla took the lead with the stitching while I disconnected the propane tank and then tried to figure out why the compass light wasn’t working.
I was feeling anxious that morning. A cold front was coming and it was unlikely that we would depart on Monday, as planned. This would give us an extra day to deal with boat stuff and, if needed, we could get help from the guys at the boat yard which was closed over the weekend. At the same time, if we had to delay the departure beyond Tuesday or Wednesday we might not make it to the Bahamas by the 13th when we were scheduled to fly back. The problem of having (and needing) a full time job is that you can’t simply wait for the perfect weather window. And contrary to a delivery skipper, I don’t have the incentives to just take the risk and have a rough or dangerous passage. If weather conditions were not reasonable, I would have had to cancel the trip and try again the following year.
I started to feel better when I saw Natalia driving her black mini into the marina and, shortly after, the dogs jumping out of the car and running towards me. We unloaded Richard’s gear, a cooler with all the food he had cooked, nautical almanacs and a couple of other items I had forgotten at home. The afternoon was cold and gray and rain was coming down, albeit with some hesitation. So we rushed to store things and then went for lunch at the Marina’s restaurant.
We had to do some extensive shopping; engine parts, missing tools, oil, propane, and, of course, fresh food. That afternoon we started with Home Depot, a place I had visited way too often during the last couple of months. The ride there confirmed my suspicion; Hampton was a city in decay where all the activity occurred along a couple of sub-urban strips. We came back to attend the daily weather brief by Chris Parker who was connecting via video from somewhere in Florida. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would be relying on his very valuable, personal, advice towards the end of the passage to Bahamas. His main message to those of us congregated in the Salty Dawg room was to delay departure until Tuesday, unless we were ready to leave right away. We, and the majority of the other boats, were not. So we hit the bar instead.
I discussed the options with Richard and Carla while siping gin with a splash of tonic. Chris had suggested that boats bound to Bahamas sail close to the Virginia coast, round Cape Hatteras, sail south towards Cape Fear and cross the Gulf Stream at around 75W and 35N. Getting to that point would take us at least 3 full days and therefore we would have much less certainty about what the weather would be like when crossing. I had read several accounts of how nasty things can be when a north east wind, blowing above 15 Kts, opposed the relentless advance of the mighty river in the ocean, over 60 miles wide in parts. By comparison, the Amazon river has for most of its lenght a width of 6 miles expanding to 30 during the wet season. It is sometimes referred as the River Sea but it pales in comparison with the Gulf Stream; an truly formidable ocean river. I also not happy with the idea of sailing close to Cape Hatteras. Chris’s suggestion was very different from our original plan: exiting the Chesapeake and heading directly, east-south-east, towards the Gulf Stream and completing the crossing during the first 34 hours of the passage. But a “low” was coming out of Cape Hatteras and was expected to generate North-East winds above 30 Kts over the Gulf Stream by Tuesday morning, just at the time when we would have been crossing if we left early Monday. Departing on Tuesday offered better prospects but his suggestion was still to head south and delay the crossing.
That night we joined a happy hour with Salty Dawg sailors where I tried a concoction which, I understand, mixed rum, beer, and ginger. Unforgettable. Never again. Natalia and I were chatting with the captain and crew of Cayuga, a Valiant 40 that had also come down from Whitehall marina and was headed to the BVI. They left a few days before Carla and I did, and I had been looking forward to meeting them in Hampton. They were disappointed with the forecast and the news that they would have to stay a couple more days — after 5 days in Hampton they just wanted to go. Eventually Richard and Carla reappeared, not clear from where, and we joined the Salty Dawg dinner; delicious pulled pork that, unfortunately, was eaten without wine as the only drink available was the rum mix. As soon as we finished our dishes we went back to the boat to continue the soiree with proper drinks. I fixed G&Ts for Richard and I, and Natalia uncorked a bottle of wine. We stayed there for a long time under the dim light of the cabin.
The next day we got up hungry and went to have breakfast in town. We tried to find a nice cafe somewhere but, with no luck, we ended at the International House of Pancakes; the first time for Carla and I. I should have simply ordered some eggs and a toast and be safe, but Natalia convinced me to try some sort of panned steak. One more thing that I will never do gain. We spent the next 6 hours driving from one store to the next; we visited Costco, West Marine, Home Depot (again), and other outlets of lesser renown. Natalia was getting tired and bored and wanted to head back to DC no later than 2pm. And so she did. Carla, Richard, and I spent the rest of the afternoon working on the boat. Richard fixed the compass light, I stopped the drip from the packing gland, and Carla did some more work with varnish and silicon. Before dinner we met with the captain and crew of another boat heading to the Bahamas the next day, mainly to compare notes. He and his wife had done the passage several times before and I got some good tips about how to enter Marsh Harbor and clear customs. We both agreed that we would head directly towards the Gulf Stream after leaving the Chesapeake early in the morning, but it wouldn’t happen that way…